Set in Prohibition era rural Virginia, Lawless marks the fourth feature film collaboration between director John Hillcoat and musician, writer and occasional actor Nick Cave; it’s their second collaboration with Cave in the role of scenarist. Like Hillcoat’s The Proposition, which came from an original Cave script, Lawless, adapted from Matt Bondurant’s historical novel The Wettest County in the World—itself based on Bondurant’s own family history—follows the fates of three brutish brothers pitted against corrupt authorities. But The Proposition was a western set in Hillcoat and Cave’s native Australia, and was a far more distinctive and relevant piece of revisionist genre cinema. Much of what transpires in Lawless, by contrast, is as boilerplate as its title: the fraught fraternal hierarchy, the super-evil chief villain, the female characters neatly divided into Madonna and whore—even Cave’s score sounds kinda generic. The film is disappointing; whatever you thought of Hillcoat’s previous feature, The Road, which Cave scored, you couldn’t fault it for lack of ambition or aesthetic vision. Yet I can’t call Lawless a complete failure either.
The Bondurant brothers, Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LeBeouf), are hillbilly bootleggers whose business is encroached upon by outsiders, led by Chicago-based special agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), looking to get in on the profits. The story is told from Jack’s point-of-view, which is unfortunate given LeBeouf’s overworked earnestness, but Jack is indeed the one undergoing the most radical shifts in character: we see the boys as kids in an overfamiliar prologue in which wimpy little Jack can’t work up the gumption to kill a hog, something his stoic elder brothers do without hesitation. Forrest is the most enigmatic character; at a young age he claimed he and his brothers were immortal, and Forrest Bondurant’s uncanny real-life biography, peppered with a series of injuries that most of us would never survive, feels like the best reason to tell this story in the first place. I wish it was more about Forrest and his strange life, and that Hardy was more central to the film since he also gives what is by far the most compelling performance.
Lawless’ most flamboyant performance however would easily be Pearce’s. His Rakes is an improbable dandy: eyebrows plucked, hair slicked and dyed to an ebony sheen, wearing delicate gloves and pearly waistcoats. He looks like Satan’s golf tee. Sneering and preening and gleefully sadistic, Pearce’s choice to hurl himself right over the top is a perfectly reasonable response to this character’s absurdly overstated villainy; the character also reads as a closeted homosexual monster, a fairly lazy, offensive, outdated paradigm.
While I’m a huge admirer of Cave’s work in most other circumstances, I recognize that the script for Lawless is the sum of Cave’s weakest tendencies. Nonetheless I could still imagine a more appealing realization of that script helmed by a director with more of humour, sense of place and affection for character, however archetypical, than Hillcoat displays here with his ceremoniousness, overstated brutality and overly cutty violence. It’s been nearly ten years since David Gordon Green made anything even close to worthy of the promise of his debut, George Washington; I wish someone like Green, the kind of filmmaker we used to label “regional,” could get this kind of a gig. Even with all its clichés, it would still have felt more shook alive and lived-in and curious about the world and the mysteries of the past.